Winning back the Mauritian smile is a priority

By Samad Ramoly

Without the activism of taxpayers, consumers and minority shareholders to claim their social and economic rights, without, in return, a leadership capable of rallying the majority of Mauritians around a real social project, Mauritius will never offer its citizens the quality of life they actually deserve 

What has Mauritius achieved since its political “independence”? Well, it does not only depend on the points of comparison, but also on the experiences of each individual. The perception may differ dramatically according to whether one is, for instance, a wretched soul from Karo Kalyptis or a casual foreign traveller with or without Nobel blessing. 

From a strictly material standpoint, the overall impression tends to showcase a “progress” represented, among other things, by better-equipped and cyclone-proof houses, satellite dishes, highways, shopping malls. Upon deconstructing the “devlopma,” a far more nuanced reality settles. The critical question is: at what cost? 

In the wake of the “miracle” of the 1980s, full employment, extra income in households and relatively low inflation have contributed to the expansion of disposable income and the sophistication of lifestyle. All of a sudden “needs” became more affordable, “wants” were accessible to many Mauritians, regardless of the magnitude of indebtedness. Proof that, even if it was short-lived, a feel good factor was in the air. Yet it is in such a mood that a comprehensive transformation is less painful to implement.  

The gap between supply and demand in virtually every sector has kept widening ever since whether in terms of quantity or quality. Today, mismatches are so glaring that it becomes legitimate to be worried. If there is a virtue that seems at odds with the characteristics of our successive governments, except perhaps to a lesser extent the first government after independence, it is planning. The star features of post-“miracle” governance are self-indulgence and babble. 

Here is a very telling depiction of what distinguishes vision from hallucination: the third terminal operational recently at Changi Airport in Singapore was already enrolled in the master plan of 1975. In Mauritius, “growth at all costs” has blinded us from the imperative for foresight and to adapt to global change. To satisfy the obsession instead of updating and synergising policies, Mauritius has been largely confined in boosting its economic expansion through rupee depreciation while benefiting from preferential agreements. 

Gradually, as the country shifts from the era of “miracle” and the benevolence of “friendly countries”, Mauritians, for whom “needs” and “wants” have overlapped in the meantime, wake up to a situation where they have to struggle even for the minimum subsistence level. As persistent fat cat-backed rupee depreciation — despite some anecdotal respite — and producer capture gnaw at their purchasing power, they find themselves in a debt trap with the threat of unemployment hovering over their heads. Thus, for many Mauritians, existence is now a matter of survival. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has been endowed with the same strength of character to cope. In fact, while some, victims of ingrained socio-cultural stigma or prisoners of a lack of training and qualifications, are more vulnerable and often drown in social ills, others are forced to combine two or more jobs in a bid to make ends meet or still others consider emigration as the ultimate escape from dire straits. 

Today it is undeniable: the attitude of much of our human capital can frustrate even the most empathetic employer. Is it because Mauritians have become reckless “assistés” and deliberately choose the path of least resistance? Why then these young Mauritians freshly landed in, say, Canada, demonstrate so much pep? Like entrepreneurs, other citizens thrive on the prospect of future rewards. Mauritius-building is intimately correlated to how deeply the majority of Mauritians identify with “devlopma”. 

Gloom is set to persist until distortions in the mechanism of redistribution of wealth and the social ladder are acknowledged and resolved. In this context, what Mauritius does not need are these dogmatic “reforms” packaged by the Aid Industry that perpetuate our reliance and undermine the very foundations of coexistence. Simultaneously, crony capitalism, transmitted by endemic corruption, promotes a concentration of the country’s resources dangerously. 

Would it be presumptuous to suggest that if Mauritius has achieved whatever it has achieved, it is less because of its successive governments, but more in spite of them? In a survey by an employers’ organisation, only 6% of respondents praise the “reforms” hailed by rent seekers and their apparatchiks as the gold standard of policy-making.  

Meanwhile, one of the enablers of “booms” and “busts” to come argued that Integrated Resort Scheme projects should not be heavily taxed because it would “kill the goose that lays golden eggs.” To put it bluntly, “reducing bureaucracy” can be tantamount to scrolling the red carpet for members of a “club” cleverly targeted. Mauritians are expected to rejoice when land grabbing by the affluent lasts indefinitely. 

What about these “poor” who have the privilege of a particularly cynical plea? Do they not correspond in reality to the 94% of businesses and households by extension, excluded from the networks of patronage and are content with the crumbs of the “fruits of the reforms”? Food and energy security, environmental sustainability, blooming through a vibrant cultural scene and affordable leisure activities would hence be wishful thinking. 

The desired turnaround will remain elusive until a critical mass breaks free of the scourges probably bequeathed by colonisation and an education system that glorifies the ability to memorise. “Hero”-worship and discernment deficit that lead to hopelessly partisan and binary mindsets on the one hand, and the tyranny of “experts” and bogus champions on the other, mutually reinforce each other. Will a partnership between the University of Mauritius and the World Bank then be more likely to create robust growth or robust groupthink? 

To challenge the siphoning of public funds, citizens must first internalise the fact that governments are merely custodians of their own money, before they develop the reflex to relentlessly advocate unflinching transparency. A Freedom of Information Act has the potential to convey probably the single most effective deterrent against corruption. Another reflex that must sink in is the urge for “sanzman” not because we do not want to earn a bad name from foreigners but because our governments are primarily accountable to us. 

Without the activism of taxpayers, consumers and minority shareholders to claim their social and economic rights, without, in return, a leadership capable of rallying the majority of Mauritians around a real social project, Mauritius will never offer its citizens the quality of life they actually deserve. Indian Supreme Court judges epitomise how forces for good are bound to emerge somehow as they take judicial activism to new heights precisely to supplement rogue politicians. 

Finally, it is immaterial whether inspiration comes from North or South, East or West, Left or Right. The missing link is a result-oriented framework, a brand of pragmatism nonetheless thoroughly stripped of Bushism or Sarkozyism. Breeding lost generations is suicidal. Ironically, without fresh blood at its heart the revamp of Mauritius is a non-starter. 

The key to the well-being of Mauritius lies in the integrity of its system. 

* Published in print edition on 20 May 2011

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